Amen Corner: The Fijian Meal Tradition

Previously published in Worship 96 (October 2022).

The Fijian Meal Tradition:
An Invitation to Liturgical Inculturation
By Iosefo Lui and Carmel Pilcher

The Fijian Islands are world renowned for their friendliness and generous hospitality to visitors. The locals are extremely gracious to any newcomer, most especially when it comes to sharing food. If one is walking by a family sharing a picnic in a park inevitably someone in the group will call out with the greeting, “Come and eat.” Commensality is characteristic of many societies but is a special characteristic of Fiji and the neighboring Pacific Islands.

A formal meeting or a catch-up with a friend will always include food.
No Fijian ever comes empty-handed to a gathering, and their offerings will be bountiful. The customary “bring a plate” in Western society could more accurately be described as “bring many plates” in Fiji—soqo. When the host provides an overabundance of food the guest is expected to come back for “seconds.” The host will typically urge everyone to “have some more.”

Whether a family gathering or a ceremonial meal commemorating a special event, meal sharing always includes a formal element, spoken or unspoken. Food is shared and so is time. Fijians joke that they live in their own “Pacific time.” Spending hours preparing a meal is only eclipsed by the time that participants will take to enjoy both the food and each other. Thomas O’Loughlin tells us that “societies express and define themselves by their meal practices.”(1) If this is so then Fijian society can be described as exceptionally hospitable, generous, and respectful of all persons, friend or stranger alike.

Fijian commensality extends to their religious faith. Catholics come to celebrate Eucharist, not only on Sundays, but often on weekdays. Baptisms, funerals and anniversaries, weddings, birthdays, all are celebrated in the context of Eucharist and continue with a shared meal. Conscious of Pope Francis’s call to Indigenous peoples to inculturate the liturgy, (2) we ask the question: could aspects of Fijian cultural meals be incorporated into the church’s eucharistic tradition? (3)

Indigenous Fijians have a long and rich cultural tradition surrounding meals. In the villages locals gather to eat twice a day—in the morning before working in the fields, and for the more important meal in the evening, when every person in the household is present, including the head of the family and the elders. (4) Seniority and gender determine the sitting arrangements around the ibe ni kana—eating mat. Elders and heads of households sit at the head or upper end of the circle facing the main entrance of the house, then the sons, in order of seniority. The women and girls sit at the other end so that they can serve the meal, which is placed in the center of the circle. While the women eat last, it is expected that those served first ensure enough food is left for all to eat.

When a family sits around the eating mat for an evening meal on any given day the participation of the whole family and the sense of presence to each other symbolizes unity, respect, and care for each other. Traditional meal sharing ex- tends beyond the family. The women always prepare more food than is needed to accommodate extra guests. It is customary that the head of the household invites anyone who passes by during mealtime to join the meal. Moreover, leftovers symbolise sautu—prosperity. Each family belongs to a clan or village. Whatever an individual or individual household does, for good or for ill, affects the whole village. If the family is divided or there is insufficient food to feed guests, not only is the family found wanting, but the reputation of the village is also at stake.

Ceremonial meals such as a wedding feast, a birthday, or a funeral, follow the pattern of a family meal, but with additional elements. When all the participants are gathered on the mat, magiti—a ritual presentation of food that might also include mats, kerosene, or even the most highly prized gift of all, the tabua, whale’s tooth—are ritually presented. Accompanying the magiti is vosa—a formal speech given by the matanivanua—a special clan of orators who act as spokespersons for the chief of the village. It is their role to acknowledge the occasion in the context of vanua (5)—the deep interconnectedness that indigenous Fijians experience not only with the land, the sea, and each other but, by extension, with all of creation.

In Fijian society the matanivanua, the orator, whose craft is passed from generation to generation through instruction and imitation, gives vosa, voice, to a word that embodies and brings to consciousness the strength and power of the vanua. The vosa always follows the same pattern, a threefold structure. It begins with au vura saka—an acknowledgement of the chief and people— before the central message is communicated, and always concludes with the words:

“Au tekivuna tiko mai vuna, vagauna taka tiko, me yaco yani sovuna, me savurogo I lomani vale.”

“I end the message, beginning from the roots to the stem, to the shoots, may the message find a hearing in the house.”

The participants then proclaim with one voice: “Io”—“yes,” followed by cobo—three hollow claps. Then follows another speech, ulivi ni vosa, that acknowledges reception of the message. To that speech the gathering responds, “Mana eiii dina”—“Amen—let it be.” (6)

In ancient Fijian tradition, customary rituals always culminated in the sharing of a meal, whether the occasion called for gratitude, reconciliation, or healing. With every first harvest of the land or catch from the sea, a meal was prepared and ceremonially given to the chief or to the priest with gratitude to persons, the land, and the gods who continued to provide them with bounty from generation to generation. Today vosa is offered to soldiers and people before they leave their home shores for duties across the seas, depart for boarding school, or visit another island—vanua. It belongs to a father when he addresses a member of the household to redress a wrong done, or for appreciation for a task fulfilled, and to a village when vanua is broken by deliberate acts of harm toward persons or a group or the land itself. Fijians continue to ritualize their belief and hope through commensality, in the past to the creator gods and, with the advent of Christianity, to the God of Jesus, confident that the creator God would continue to nourish the land and sea for the livelihood of the people. (7)

So many elements of Fijian meal sharing are comparable to Jesus’ own meal sharing recorded in the Scriptures. The lavish nature of a Fijian meal recalls
the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus provided an abundance of wine for
the guests when the wine supply ran low, thus avoiding shame for the hosts. Fijian women who serve with love and care identify with the Christ who washed the disciples’ feet at the final supper before his death. Those friendships forged by Jesus at meals, particularly with the outcast and those needing forgiveness, reflect Fijian hospitality that welcomes the stranger without questioning status or background. The Fijian gathering around an eating mat arranged hierarchically but structurally a circle where those served first are mindful of all concurs with Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:17-33) that at the Lord’s Supper all are welcome and are to behave as one body in Christ. Scholars re- mind us that the banquet stories, often put onto the lips of Jesus, anticipate the Parousia. This could also be said of the long Fijian tradition of meal sharing.

Christians gather with each other on Sunday to commemorate the Lord’s Supper. With the same care taken to prepare their own meals, Fijian Catholics take time to prepare for Sunday Eucharist. They decorate the sanctuary space with beautiful flowers and special cloths, usually the color of the liturgical season. They also reflect on the Word of God each week with their own family and local parish sector. Fijians ensure that the music to be sung is the best it can be by regular practice. For a special celebration the choir might gather for weeks to practice the hymns for several hours each evening. The glorious Pacifican singing not only binds the liturgy together but lifts it to a higher plane, so that it brings about a sense of the divine in the present.

But when it comes to the prayers of the Eucharist, it is simply assumed that these belong to the ordained priest who will make his own choices and prepare his homily, generally without any connection to the peoples’ insights from their own Bible study, or even to the intentions of the universal prayer. There seems a clear demarcation in the minds of those who participate in the Lord’s Supper between what the priest prepares and does, and what “belongs” to the assembly. This is such a contrast with the Fijian meal tradition where, although people take on different tasks, there is a sense that everyone works together, and when the celebration takes place, it is one meal where each relates to the other, bonded in friendship through the common food that is shared.

The gap between Fijian and church traditional meal sharing became clearer
in 2021, at the height of the COVID pandemic. Fiji was in lockdown for seven continuous months to overcome the quick spread of the delta virus.
This had a serious effect on the society’s meal-sharing tradition. Not only was any form of gathering forbidden by the government, but domestic meals were limited to the food that was available. Rather than food in abundance, Fijian families who were struck by sickness and unemployment found they did not even have sufficient food each day. Many started growing crops, while others had to rely on the generosity of others. Food packages were delivered to the poor in villages. Sadly, despite restrictions in movement many caught the virus, and too many people died. Because people were unable to physically gather, all meal sharing ceased and no traditional rites could be performed.

Faith leaders responded to the closure of places of worship by providing alternatives. Catholics were able to access televised and livestreamed Masses led by priests from their homes. The livestreaming and recordings of the Eucharist served a pastoral need, as is evident by the many Catholics who tuned in daily for the celebration of the Eucharist. The eucharistic celebration followed the usual format, but with only the ordained and whoever else might be physically resident in his home celebrating. Meanwhile families gathered in their homes, around their technological device that was often surrounded by religious images. They sang the hymns and prayed the responses, albeit remotely. At the time of the usual Communion procession to the table, a prayer desiring spiritual communion was recited while the presider ate and drank alone.

Issues about virtual Mass have been addressed by many liturgical scholars. Here we wish only to comment on the eucharistic meal tradition as under- stood by Fijian Catholics. With the restrictions brought about by the government’s response to the pandemic, Fijians were quick to realize that without physical presence it was not possible to share a ceremonial meal. By contrast, those same people did not question virtually celebrating the Eucharist—also a meal—only expressing disappointment that they could not partake in Communion.

The church teaches that each Sunday an assembly of priestly people gathers
to be fed and nourished, both at the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist. Fijian worshipers did not seem to understand this clearly. Could including aspects of the rich heritage of Fijian meal sharing in eucharistic celebrations strengthen the Fijian consciousness to realize that the memorial meal is central to the celebration of the Eucharist?

Earlier we established that there are enough common elements between the two meal traditions to enter into a meaningful dialogue between the ancient cultural wisdom of Fijian commensality and the memorial meal of the Eucharist. So what might this look like?

Sitting on the floor is the Fijian gesture for respect. In village churches where most sit on mats during the celebration, the ritual meal of Eucharist would be visually strengthened if the presider and lector also sat on those same mats at low tables. Cloths that embellish the space, and vestments, could be tapa— traditionally made cloths with local earth-colored patterns—rather than the typical seasonally imported colored cloths of the Roman tradition.

The presentation of magiti is comparable to the bringing of gifts to the eucharistic table. While usually bread and wine and soli—monetary gifts—are presented, in addition, first fruits and other contributions including those ritually offered at a traditional ceremonial meal could be presented. They could be presented using the traditional gesture of outstretched hands and received in the usual Fijian manner—with the recipient clapping—cobo. It would help make the connection between the gifts brought to the table and the meal to be shared. Just as no Fijian considers eating alone, or from food prepared from another meal, so all share in communion with the body and blood of Christ’s sacrifice in communion at the table.

The presider, deacon, and lectors pray in God’s name and speak God’s Word. They are the matanivanua, the orators, at a celebration of the Eucharist in Fiji. (8) They too speak the vosa, giving voice to a word that embodies and brings to consciousness the strength and power of the vanua that connects all of creation in Christ, continuing the memory of the ancestors. Mindful of Pope Francis’s instruction that the homily is a dialogue (9) it would be possible to craft the homily with the threefold structure of the vosa of the matanivanua, the ulivi ni vosa, and the congregational responses, which would both make a direct connection with a Fijian ceremonial meal and also enhance conscious and active participation for the assembly. (10)

The traditional meal sharing reflects how indigenous Fijians (11) view their society, and what it should be. A critical reflection of traditional societal meal sharing, including the way ancient ceremony has been moderated and adjusted over time to suit current situations seems opportune. This study would make it possible to identify Fijian values that are also Christian and that continue to be affirmed both ritually and symbolically at meals. The eucharistic meal celebrates the paschal mystery, a memorial meal of Christ’s selfless love. A catechesis of the eucharistic celebration based on the gospel meal tradition could assist Catholics to realize what it is that they do when they gather around the table of Eucharist as Christ’s priestly people on the Lord’s Day.

Inculturating the liturgy is a challenge to us all, but when embraced fully it can bring about genuine participation that flows into right living. A re-evaluation of traditional meal sharing can serve to restore cultural values, just as a deliberate attempt to bring into the Christian liturgy elements of Fijian meal sharing might provide a conscious eucharistic celebration that ensures the community that what is celebrated as a memorial of Christ’s meal tradition flows into everyday life.


1) Thomas O’Loughlin, The Eucharist: Origins and Contemporary Understandings (London: T & T Clark, 2015), 86.

2) Pope Francis reminded the Amazonian church that “[t]he Second Vatican Council called for this effort to inculturate the liturgy amongst indigenous peoples.” Francis, Querida Amazonia 82, _exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20200202_querida -amazonia.html.

3) We are grateful for the valuable insights of Dr. Peter Loy Chong, the current archbishop of Suva, who both affirmed our conclusions and has already begun the process of implementing them.

4) Details concerning traditional Fijian meals are sourced from Asesela Ravuvu, The Fijian Way of Life: The Many Functions of Food (Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, USP, 1993).

5) For a Fijian understanding of vanua see Dr. Donato Kivi’s explanation in the previous essay in Worship: “The Pandemic Push for Inculturation,” Worship 96 (July 2022): 197.

6) We acknowledge Dr. Peter Loy Chong for this explanation and translation.

7) Ilaitia Tuwere, Vanua: Towards a Fijian Theology of Place (Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, USP, 2002), 173.

8) At a recent ordination in Suva, Archbishop Peter Loy Chong used the matanivanua as an analogy for the role of the deacon and a homilist.

9) Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 137, /apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii -gaudium.html.

10) Archbishop Peter Loy Chong is in the process of instructing his catechists to preach in the pattern of the matanivanua at a traditional meal when they lead services of Word and Communion in remote villages. Communicated by email: May 5, 2022.

11) While our discussion only focused on indigenous Fijians, Indo and Chinese Fijians (and others who call Fiji home) could bring their own traditional cultural values to enhance the liturgy.

Brief Book Review: Verbum ac Spiritus

Verbum ac Spiritus: Word and Spirit
On the Double Role of Presiding in the Assembly and
Directing the Prayer
By Daniel P. McCarthy, O.S.B.

Who should read this? This book will be most applicable for professional liturgists, liturgical presiders, and those involved in the building and renovating of churches. It will also be useful to those who are interested in the reform processes which took place before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council.

What’s the main point? The presider’s chair has two essential functions in the renewed and reformed Roman liturgy. In the Liturgy of the Word, it is the place where the presider listens to the Scriptures and offers the homily; in the liturgical assembly, it is the place where he receives and directs the community’s prayer to God.

Why is this book useful? The author presents a historically and phenomenologically grounded theology of liturgical presiding, as well as principles for planning and/or re-organizing liturgical space in contemporary churches.

Kudos. Verbum ac Spiritus is a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, written under the direction of the noted Sicilian liturgist Crispino Valenziano. Consequently, Verbum ac Spiritus allows English-language readers to access Valenziano’s groundbreaking theology of liturgical architecture. McCarthy forms his conclusions partly on the basis of his doktorvater’s theology (presented here in detail) and partly on the basis of his own painstaking historical research. By providing primary sources and translations for all references to the chair from the ancient Roman liturgy until the post-Vatican II reforms, he comprehensively documents the development, disappearance, and restoration of the presider’s chair to its proper place in the liturgy. In a renewed and reformed Roman liturgy, the altar remains the appropriate place for the Liturgy of the Eucharist to unfold, while the Liturgy of the Word now depends upon the liturgical ministers who serve at the ambo and the presider’s chair. McCarthy concludes by offering a photographic presentation of a number of ancient and contemporary churches, providing an analysis of how each church can unveil the principles he establishes by his research.

Quibbles. The vast majority of Verbum ac Spiritus is taken up by the historical study of the presider’s chair. Originally Fr. McCarthy’s doctoral dissertation, this study was only lightly revised for this publication. McCarthy examines – one by one and in detail – the ancient Roman documents such as the Verona, Old Gelasian, and Gregorian sacramentaries; the various Ordines Romani, medieval, and Tridentine documents; and an exceptional number of documents (including the “minutes” of conciliar meetings) from all stages of the Vatican II reforms. While valuable for its comprehensive character, this section could be taxing for readers from a non-specialist audience. Additionally, the introductory “theological” section of the book – nearly ninety pages in length – is presented without much reference to the historical analysis which follows. The reader is sometimes left attempting to differentiate seemingly a priori theological principles for liturgical architecture from those more firmly rooted in historical research.

Suggestions. Verbum ac Spiritus is a valuable contribution to liturgical studies for its meticulous examination of a unique aspect of the recent Roman Catholic liturgical reforms. Because of its length and comprehensive character, the book will most likely serve as a reference work on the various principles – theological, historical, and otherwise – of Roman Catholic liturgical architecture. Generally, the student of comparative liturgy will be left searching for an analysis of similar trends in the Eastern and non-Roman liturgical traditions. Hopefully Fr. McCarthy’s book can spur further research into the liturgical theology and history of the “presider” in other traditions and ritual families. Finally, for less specialist readers with an interest in liturgical architecture, I would recommend McCarthy’s collaboration with Dom James G. Leachman, OSB: Come into the Light: Church Interiors for the Celebration of Liturgy (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2016). This book presents, in a very readable form, an admirable synthesis and application of Crispino Valenziano’s liturgical theology to the construction and renovation of contemporary churches.

McCarthy, O.S.B., Daniel P. Verbum ac Spiritus: Word and SpiritWashington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2022. $75.00. ISBN: 9780907077732.

REVIEWER: Alexander Turpin
Alexander Turpin is a Roman Catholic priest of the
Diocese of Rockville Centre, Long Island, New York.
He is a doctoral candidate (S.T.D.) in Liturgical Studies
at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.,
where his dissertation focuses on the liturgical reception
of Christian converts in the Byzantine Orthodox Churches.
He is also an alumnus of the master’s program at the
Pontifical Liturgical Institute entitled “Architettura e arti per la liturgia,”
a course of study based in large part upon the theological and historical scholarship of Crispino Valenziano.

Does Easter Ask Too Much…?

“Therefore, overcome with paschal joy, every land, every people exults in your praise and even the heavenly Powers, with the angelic hosts, sing together the unending hymn of your glory, as they acclaim…”

So concludes every Easter Preface in the third edition of the Roman Missal, an ebullient departure from the more succinct conclusion of the second edition:

“The joy of the resurrection renews the whole world, while the choirs of heaven sing for ever to your glory…”

It would appear that the revised translation more than states what the resurrection accomplishes, it directs the appropriate response of all the cosmos to this definitive action of God in human history. It isn’t just choirs of angels who delight and rejoice, it is now contingent upon all creation to exult with overwhelming joy. The translation in the third edition of the Missal places strong and powerful emphasis on communicating that exuberant, unfettered, unrelenting joy, which is the foundation of the Paschal event.

There is almost a frivolous giddiness to the Easter preface conclusion. In some circles this might seem contrary to the oftentimes “serious demeanor” of the liturgical enterprise. “Unbridled joy” may rarely come to mind when celebrating in some assemblies. However, the preface specifically calls forth such emotion in drawing the assembly into the Eucharistic Prayer.

Does this ask too much of presider and assembly? Fifty Days of persistent joy. How is such a thing possible, especially when global, communal, and personal circumstances echo tragic and more virulent truths to mock such sentiments? To pray and proclaim such happiness consistently throughout the Easter Season places no simple challenge upon a presider at the Eucharistic liturgy. Yet, as we pass the half-way point of the Easter Season, have presiders, and assemblies, continued enthusiastically responding with the angelic hosts to the destiny transforming reality of the Resurrection?

An important and perhaps crucial question to ask. If Christ is not risen, then everything we do as believers in the world is in vain, as Saint Paul emphatically states. Witnessing to the world the transformation brought about through the Paschal Mystery, then, is paramount. Failure to communicate the ongoing power of this event in the prayers of the Mass, let alone in the closing lines of the Easter prefaces, and the assembly can just as easily fail to grasp the necessity of the Paschal event for faith that is authentic and viable.

Publicly praying, let alone proclaiming, the final lines of an Easter preface in a manner akin to a dry read of a legal disclaimer contributes to making the impact of the Resurrection nothing more than a fantastic postscript to the Cross. It robs us of the anamnesis of joy, which ought to characterize in every age the witness of a believer in the world. A moment wherein the preface serves as the ultimate “warm up” for realizing the purpose of liturgy as lex vivendi, what it means to live as a believer. It is incumbent upon every presider to express this joy in a way unlike any other time in the liturgical year.

This is why we cannot be lax in embracing the joy of Easter, especially as we move deeper into the Fifty Days. It is necessary to remind each other, as Aiden Kavanaugh proclaimed, that with the Paschal Mystery human history has been jerked onto new courses that have forever transformed our future destiny. Giving prerogative to the forty days of Lent without surpassing that emphasis in Easter reveals we still have much to learn and understand of the joy and hope, which must form the core of what and why we believe that God can and does fulfill the promises God has made.

Yes, Easter does ask much of us, but that is Easter’s challenge. There is nothing flippant about the paschal joy the Resurrection calls forth.  It is not a joy that absurdly masks the pains and brokenness of the world. Easter calls forth creation to exult in a joy that comes when we surrender all that we feebly attempt to control and direct in life to the will God. It is the greatest of all challenges we face in our lives of faith, but a challenge necessary to engage and grow ever stronger in faith. To grow, as it has been said, so that once again we may “put back Christ in the center of human life, where for too long we have placed sin and death.”

Applause, Applause!

In the Innsbruck Jesuit Church music plays a major role in the liturgy, at least in the main services on Sunday mornings. Organists play the most ambitious pieces during the entrance procession or as recessionals postludes or during the offertory. Semi-professional choirs sing Renaissance ordinaries. A schola sings Gregorian Mass Propers. Chanters sing antiphonal psalms and anthems together with the assembly. Every Sunday has its own character, the music is announced on semiannual flyers and individual posters. The Catholic Church proves to be an agent of a rich and ambitious cultural history, providing many different styles of music, different options of role allocations for musicians, singers, and actively participating assemblies.

Over the years it has become deeply customary that the assembly applauds an the end of the Mass, and honestly: I dislike that (to say the least). Liturgy is not the place for human skills for their own sake. Every liturgical role should be transparent to what it represents. A lector is to be transparent to the Word of the Scripture. A presider is to be transparent to Christ and to the unity of the church. A musician is to be transparent to the music etc. The people’s applause insinuates that they regard the person more than the message or the liturgical role.

Of course there are certain exceptions: When a schoolchildren’s orchestra plays, I applaud in order to encourage the kids, honor their developing skills, and let them feel welcome in the church. I also applaud when the esteemed long-term organist has finished his final postlude after decades of service. I know that people usually clap their hands during a pope’s homily, and maybe there are regions in the world where applause has a different meaning than here. But apart from those cases: No applause in the liturgy please.

Now here comes the second part of my story: In October 2020 I was asked to serve as chanter in the ordination liturgy of two Austrian Jesuit priests. It was the time when the pandemic restrictions got more severe for the second time. The entire preparation was very complicated, we had to change our plans every few days according to public and church orders. Everyone had to wear face coverings, the number of participants was limited, physical distance had to be kept during the entire service. Everything was complex, everything required much concentration, many things were different than usual, and it was physically exhausting.

Cardinal Schoenborn from Vienna came to Innsbruck to ordain the Jesuits. Then came the moment when the ordination itself was over, right before the liturgy turns to the offertory. The cardinal gave the sign of peace to the newly ordained (just verbally, anything else was prohibited), and then he moved his hands apart and—applauded. People immediately started to smile (although we could only see each other’s eyes), clapped their hands, and you could even hear laughter and cheers. This was the most friendly and happy moment of the entire liturgy. It was cathartic and liberating.

Since the entire liturgy was live-streamed, you can see the crucial moment in this video after 1 hour, 19 minutes: Unfortunately the director switched to another camera in the moment when the cardinal started to clap his hands. I do not believe that you can feel the same when you watch the video that I felt in that very moment, but maybe you can sense the catharsis of the situation. (Please do not forget that the smiles in the people’s faces are the deepest expression of enthusiasm that Northern Europeans are capable of!)

After this experience I will not change my opinion on liturgical applause in general. But certain questions raised in my mind. I teach my students that every Amen is an expression of approval, every Deo gratias an expression of gratitude, every Creed an expression of faith, every Hallelujah an expression of rejoicing etc. But all these elements are somehow artificial and formalistic, at least to the very most of us. What happened in this moment was more than just courtesy, it was honest and deeply authentic, and it was spontaneous. That is why it could never have been prescribed in a liturgical book. Does it make it less liturgical? I do not think so. I think that Cardinal Schoenborn did exactly the right thing to provide a deeper liturgical experience for all of us. Or at least for me.

First Blessing in the Ordination Mass?

Catholic ordinations always take place in a Mass, and the presider is always a bishop. The bishop presides over any liturgy, priests only act as his representative with his mandate (cf. e.g. Lumen Gentium 26). In the ordination liturgy itself, the newly ordained priests assist the bishop as concelebrants (a quite unfortunate term in my eyes, but be that as it may) for the rest of the Mass. So far, so good.

But then there is the tradition of the “first blessing” of a newly ordained priest where it starts to get a bit complicated. How does the first blessing relate to the ordination liturgy itself? The Latin Pontificale leaves no doubt: There is no first blessing whatsoever in the ordination Mass. The presiding bishop gives the final blessing of the Mass, and after the dismissal the Mass is over. Anything else can take place afterwards following local custom.

The English Pontifical follows the Latin, but I am familiar with a well-known custom that the bishop asks the newly ordained priest(s) to bless him before the dismissal. He kneels down in front of the priest(s) and receives the first blessing.

The German Pontifikale allows including the first blessing in an odd way: Where it is custom, the newly ordained priests can give the first blessing together before the final blessing of the Mass by the bishop. (“Wo es Brauch ist, können die Neupriester vor dem Schlusssegen des Bischofs gemeinsam den Primizsegen erteilen.”)

I have even been in ordination Masses where only the newly ordained priests gave the first blessing without any final blessing by the bishop, but this practice is not foreseen by the Pontifikale.

None of these options make sense to me, with the German option of a double blessing probably being the most irritating. When I studied medieval church history with the well-known professor Arnold Angenendt, I learned the early medieval concept of “pure hands” or “powerful hands”: The hands of a newly ordained priest have fresh and unspent power, hence people – even bishops – should crave such a pure blessing and literally go any distance to get one.

But from the point of view of ecclesiology, liturgical symbolism, and the theology of the ordained office after Vatican II, this notion is not convincing.

In general, the symbolism of a bishop being blessed by a non-bishop can make good sense. Acts 13:1–3, where the Christians in Antioch laid their hands on Barnabas and Saul before they sent them to Seleucia and Cyprus, might be a good example and analogy. Blessing is not a one-way road among Christians. The biblical meaning of a blessing is not only someone “with power” acting over someone “without power,” but also praying to God for someone. Any Christian should be willing to bless anyone, and even bishops (maybe bishops more than others!) should crave being blessed. We also know liturgical reflections of that idea, e.g., there were times when the pope received Holy Communion from the hands of a deacon (and never took it on his own), or when the presider’s assistants prayed for him in the Penitential Act in the same way he prayed for them. (I think we lost a lot when we lost those two traditions.)

But this is not the point in the context of current liturgical symbolism. Priests bless bishops in a public liturgical act only in this one case. It is not part of a general liturgical rule of “bishops being blessed”. It is not covered by the Latin Pontificale, and it matches neither Lumen Gentium 26 nor Sacrosanctum Concilium 13 with their clear distinction between sacred liturgy and popular devotion. The symbolism of the presiding bishop as an image of the apostolic roots of the Church and of the unity of the Church – with the priests as his helping hands and not the other way round – is quite clear and should not be called into question by any (medieval) custom of popular devotion.

So when I attend the next ordination Mass, I would be most happy if I could receive the final blessing by the presider, and if I could decide on my own whether I ask for a first blessing by a newly ordained priest or not.